There’s a reason Lance Berkman has been my favorite player to cover in my six years on this beat. In addition to being accessible and media friendly, he gives honest answers to questions and is usually right on the money with his analysis.
So when Berkman was asked Wednesday what he thought about the Astros’ chances of contending in 2010, he certainly had a few ideas:
“It’s hard to prognosticate for next year when you don’t know what your personnel situation is going to be like,” he said. “You don’t know who’s coming back and who’s not. I think until you know that from a personnel standpoint, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen.
“The one thing I do like about our team next year is the fact I think we’re going to have Roy [Oswalt] and Wandy [Rodriguez] and Bud [Norris] and then [Brian] Moehler in the rotation. I think we have four pretty solid starters that give you a chance to win. That’s where you have to start. That’s the whole foundation to the team.
“Everybody would like to add another starting pitcher, and certainly I think we need to, but the reality of the economics in this club and what we have in our farm system to trade, that may not happen and we may not have an opportunity to do that.
“But I do think that if you want to look for a positive going into the season, you have those four guys as your one through four starters. A lot of teams would be happy with that.”
Oswalt, Rodriguez and Norris are under contract for next year, but Moehler is a free agent. He’s facing off-season knee surgery, so his return to the Astros isn’t a given.
Other players under contract for next year include second baseman Kaz Matsui, third baseman Jeff Keppinger and outfielders Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and Michael Bourn.
The Astros’ potential free agents are infielders Darin Erstad, Aaron Boone and Miguel Tejada, outfielder Jason Michaels and pitchers Jose Valverde, LaTroy Hawkins, Tim Byrdak and Doug Brocail.
With Roy Oswalt out for the rest of the season, the Astros acquired some pitching help Wednesday when they purchased the contract of right-hander Chad Paronto from Triple-A Round Rock and placed right-hander Billy Sadler on the 60-day disabled list with right shoulder scapular dyskinesis.
Paronto, 34, appeared in two games for Houston in July and allowed six runs in 2 1/3 innings of relief. Paronto went 2-1 with a 1.39 ERA in 44 relief outings for Round Rock in 2009. In 173 career Major League games with Baltimore (2001), Cleveland (2002-03), Atlanta (2006-07) and Houston (2008-09), Paronto is 6-12 with a 4.27 ERA.
Sadler, 27, appeared in one game for Houston on Sept. 10 vs. ATL, allowing two runs in 1.1 innings. The right-hander went 5-3 with a 5.12 ERA in 16 combined starts for Triple-A Round Rock and Triple-A Fresno this season. He was signed by Houston to a minor league contract on Aug. 6, after being given his unconditional release by San Francisco on Aug. 5.
Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada and first base coach Jose Cruz said Monday they were offended by the accusations made Sunday by Pirates reliever Matt Capps, who accused Tejada stealing his signs through communication with Cruz.
Tejada and Capps got into a shouting match in the ninth inning Sunday after Tejada popped out. Capps later told reporters he through Tejada was getting signs from Cruz.
“Not in the 13 years I’ve been [first base coach] or the 30 years I’ve been in baseball,” Cruz said. “I’m offended, yes. I don’t know how that guy got the idea that I gave the signs to Tejada.”
Tejada said he doesn’t need to steal signs to hit.
“When I do that, I’d prefer not to play the game,” he said. “I’m the kind of hitter that it doesn’t matter where the pitcher throws, I go up there for any pitch. I don’t think I’m going to need the signs from nobody to hit. I think it’s very disrespectful for that guy to say that ‘Cheo’ gave me the signs.
“He said that he gives the signs to the Latin players, and that’s not good. That’s not good because he disrespects one of our coaches. And I think ‘Cheo’ didn’t look good. I think the people are going to think ‘Cheo’ do that for real, and that’s not true. We don’t do that here.
“We’re professionals here. We play the game right. This team never tries to fight nobody. It’s a team that just plays the game right way. For him to do that is disrespectful because I don’t think this team needs that to play this game.”
Astros manager Cecil Cooper, a good friend of Cruz, took up for both men.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. “We don’t do stuff like that. We’re good sports. That’s not the way we play. It makes it worse when he mentions Tejada. These guys are totally pros. They’re pro’s pros. I thin kit’s totally ridiculous.”
Cruz said Capps should have produced some evidence before he made accusations.
“I don’t know why he said something like that,” Cruz said. “When you said something like you have to have to some proof somebody gave the sign to somebody.”
Stealing signs, Tejada said, wouldn’t be much of a help anyway.
“Even if a pitcher tells the hitter what’s coming, he still has to hit it,” he said. “For somebody to think about it is really immature. In baseball you don’t need somebody to tell you what’s coming. You got to hit the ball in the sweet part of the bat.”
Ross Seaton, the Astros’ third-round draft pick in 2008, was at Minute Maid Park on Thursday, getting a tour from Mike Burns, the Astros coordinator of amateur scouting. Not that the Second Baptist High School product had never been to Minute Maid before, but Seaton got a behind the scenes tour of the clubhouse before watching batting practice from the field.
“It would be great to play here,” said Seaton, who turns 19 later this week.
Seaton recently wrapped up his first full season in professional baseball at Class A Lexington. He went 8-10 with a 3.29 ERA in 24 starts, throwing one complete game. In 136 2/3 innings, he allowed 137 hits, 69 runs (50 earned), 11 homers, 39 walks hit 12 batters and struck out 88.
He was part of the young and talented rotation at Lexington that included Jordan Lyles (7-11, 3.24 ERA), Robert Bono (10-8, 3.20 ERA), Kyle Greenwalt (8-13, 4.20) and Brad Dydalewicz (8-5, 3.93 ERA).
“It went really fast,” Seaton said. “I was gone seven months, and it doesn’t even seem like seven months. There’s a great group of guys down there and we fed off of each other, I’m sure.”
Seaton, who pitched in only three games last year at rookie-league Greeneville after signing with the Astros, didn’t know what to anticipate this season.
“It is completely different, but it’s better than I was expecting because you’re out on your own, you’re having fun and you get to play baseball every day,” he said. “You do it every day for five months. That was an adjustments, but it was a lot of fun.”
But there’s no rest for Seaton. Later this week, he will head to Kissimmee, Fla., to participate in the instructional league.
“I’m going to work on polishing things up, getting my command and getting the slider and curve over and all that stuff,” he said. “I’m going to keep working on the same stuff I’ve been working on all season, and now that we’re out of it this season, I can work on it a little bit more and tinker wit hstuff more than I could during the season. Hopefully, I’ll keep making progress.”
It will be interesting to see where the Astros start Seaton and the other pitchers who played in Lexington this year. Do they put them in the hitter’s paradise that his high Class A Lancaster, or do they ship them up to Double-A Corpus Christi? I’m guessing they’ll start at Lancaster but could wind up in Corpus by the end of the year. It would be nice to see one of these guys in the majors at 21 or 22 years old.
The Astros Player Development Department announced the 2009 Most Valuable Players for the team’s minor league affiliates on Thursday. The eight MVPs, selected by the field staff of each team, will be recognized at a pre-game ceremony at Minute Maid Park on Sept. 26, prior to the Astros game against the Cincinnati Reds.
Here are the MVPs for each team:
Infielder Tommy Manzella was named MVP at Triple-A Round Rock Express. He hit .289 in 133 games with nine home runs, 31 doubles and 56 RBI sand finished the Pacific Coast League season ranked second in at-bats (530) and third in hits (153).
Known for his defensive ability, Manzella earned Round Rock’s Defensive Player of the Month honors twice this season and was named by Baseball America as the organization’s best defensive infielder prior to the 2009 season.
This year, he posted a .977 fielding percentage in 130 games as Round Rock’s shortstop. A September addition to the Astros, Manzella is making his first appearance on a Major League roster. He is a native of Chalmette, La., and was drafted in the third round of the June 2005 draft.
Outfielder Drew Locke was named MVP at Double-A Corpus Christi after hitting .338 with 20 home runs, 109 RBIs and a .389 on-base percentage. He was a midseason All-Star and finished first in the Texas League in batting average, hits and RBIs, second in slugging percentage (.531), third in runs scored (81), and fourth in on-base percentage.
Acquired by Houston in the Minor League phase of the 2008 Rule V Draft, Locke finished second among all Astros’ minor leaguers in batting average and RBIs.
Lancaster’s Koby Clemens captured MVP honors for the JetHawks, the Astros’ Advanced A affiliate. Clemens put together a remarkable season, hitting .345 with 22 homers, 45 doubles and a Minor League leading 121s RBI.
The right-handed hitting catcher slugged .636 and posted a .419 on-base percentage for an OPS of 1.055. Clemens was a California League Postseason All-Star and led the league in RBIs and slugging percentage, while ranking tied for first in batting average and doubles. He also had the highest average and RBI totals among all Astros minor leaguers.
Lexington Legends outfielder/first baseman Brian Pellegrini finished with a .291 average with 27 home runs and 74 RBIs en route to claiming team MVP honors. He finished first in the South Atlantic League in home runs, while ranking second in both slugging (.578) and on-base percentage (.396). Among Astros’ prospects, Pellegrini finished the season ranking second in home runs (34) and fourth in RBIs (89) in combined totals between Lexington and Lancaster.
The short-season Tri-City ValleyCats named infielder Barry Butera team MVP after he hit .267 with 16 stolen bases in 61 games. Butera, a 21st-round selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, finished his first professional season by winning Tri-City’s Offensive Player of the Month in August. In the month, he posted a .358 average with eight RBIs.
With the rookie-league Greeneville Astros, infielder Jose Altuve hit .324 with 20 doubles, 21 steals and a .408 on-base percentage to earn team MVP honors. The 2009 Appalachian League All-Star finished the season ranking third in the league in steals and fourth in batting average and on-base percentage. His performance earned him a late-season promotion to Tri-City, where he played in 21 games for the ValleyCats.
For the Astros Gulf Coast League affiliate, infielder Enrique Hernandez earned team MVP honors by hitting .295 with 27 RBIs and 35 runs scored in 53 games. A sixth-round selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Hernandez finished the season ranking third in the league in hits and fourth in runs scored.
Infielder Hector Rodriguez was tabbed MVP of the Astros Dominican Summer League team after posting a .269 average in 55 games. The 20-year-old native Dominican was signed as a non-drafted free agent by Astros scouts Julio Linares and Arturo DeFreitas prior to the 2008 season.
The Astros currently have three of the organization’s former minor league MVP honorees on their active roster, including Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and the Express’ 2009 MVP Tommy Manzella. In 1998, Berkman won the award at Double-A Jackson with a .306 average, 24 home runs and 89 RBIs. Pence was named MVP for Class-A Lexington in 2005 after hitting .338 with 25 home runs and 60 RBIs in 80 games.
Wednesday marked the two-month mark of the last time Lance Berkman hit a home run. The homerless drought was at 31 games entering Wednesday, the second-longest such streak of Berkman’s career. His career-long drought is 33 games, set last year.
Berkman, who did spent nearly three weeks on the disabled list, hasn’t homered since July 9 against the Washington Nationals, a span of 105 at-bats through Tuesday.
“I really don’t consider myself a home run hitter,” Berkman said. “I never have, even though I’ve had some seasons when I hit a bunch of home runs. I think that I’ve been susceptible to homerless droughts.
“If you look back at my career, I had a pretty good one in ’03 and a pretty good one in ’05 and I last year I had pretty good homerless drought. In ’04 I had a real long homerless drought I broke at Shea Stadium. You remember things like that, and it’s not all that out of the ordinary. You wish it wouldn’t happen, but all I can do is go out there and hit the ball hard.”
Berkman hit .271 with 18 homers and 55 RBIs in a first half that was very un-Berkman like. He entered Wednesday hitting .258 with no homers and 11 RBIs in 93 at-bats. He missed 18 games in late July and early August with a strained left calf.
“It’s been difficult,” he said. “It’s hard to figure. I wish that weren’t the case. One of the best things I’ve ever hard an athlete say is when [Dallas Cowboys quarterback] Tony Romo said if the worst thing that happens to me in my life is sports-related, I’ll consider myself blessed.
“This is not the season I would like to have or am accustomed to having personally for the team. Everybody faces challenges in one form or another, and that’s the way I look at it. I’ll try to do the best I can the rest of the year and come back next year.”
Berkman admitted a lot of what he’s going through is mental.
“Clearly, you’re the same guy that’s had other seasons a lot better than this one, and I don’t think I’m old enough yet to get a law of diminishing returns from your age. That might start in the three or four years. It’s hard to figure from a physical standpoint.
“There is a mental component to it. You lose confidence and you try to do too much or you press a little bit, and those are things I’ve always had to deal with my whole career and sometimes I’ve been able to handle them better than others.”
Astros manager Cecil Cooper said Jeff Keppinger was available to pinch-hit Wednesday. He hadn’t played since straining his back Friday. Keppinger took ground balls at third base prior to batting practice Wednesday.
“He looked like he might be ready to get back out there,” Cooper said. “I would still be careful with him, probably just pinch-hitting and things like that. He looked OK. It still bothers him when runs a little bit.”
When asked how he planned to work third baseman Chris Johnson and shortstop Tommy Manzella into the mix, Cooper said: “I might try to plan ahead a little bit and give a guy three or four days heads up that he’s starting. We’re trying to win as many games as possible. I still have a lot of veterans who deserve to play. I will definitely plan ahead on Chris and Tommy and make sure they know they’ll be starting in three or four days [in advance]. They will know, but you won’t [reporters].”
The topic of Prince Fielder‘s over-the-top home run celebration came up in the dugout Wednesday, and not surprisingly the Astros didn’t like it. In case you missed it, Fielder hit a walk-off homer against San Francisco on Sunday and pretended to bowl over all his teammates when he arrived at home plate.
“I was always taught that when you hit a home run, you act like you’ve hit one before, like it’s not that big of a deal,” Lance Berkman said. “In 10 years in the big leagues, I’ve never taken a curtain call or anything like that [in the regular season].
“This is a different era, and a lot of things are accepted now that didn’t used to be. The way I’ve always played my career, if you hit a home run you should act like you’ve done it before. But if I happen to a home run in the next couple of games, you might see me celebrate.”
That was Berkman taking a shot at his homerless drought.
Astros manager Cecil Cooper, who is about to see Fielder break his Milwaukee single-season RBI record, wouldn’t want any of his players doing that.
“If was against my team I’d be a little upset, but it wasn’t against me so I have no problem with it,” Cooper said. “I didn’t see Ryan Howard do anything, and he hit his 440 [feet against the Astros]. That’s what you should be doing, acting as if you’re going to hit a few more.”
Welcome to the big leagues, Chris Johnson. Don’t forget to duck.
Johnson, the third base prospect who joined the team Tuesday in anticipation of his Major League debut, was struck on the head by a pitch thrown by Yorman Bazardo during a simulated game Tuesday. Johnson was dazed, but otherwise fine and shook off the incident.
“That’s why we wear helmets,” he said.
Bazardo, who hasn’t pitched in a game since Aug. 15, threw two innings to keep sharp.
“He just needed to get some work,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “He hadn’t been in a game and he needed to face some hitters. He had been sitting out there for nine, 10 days without seeing a hitter.
“It’s one thing to throw a pen and another thing to face a hitter. He unfortunately hit one, but the ball came out of his hand real good and I saw some good movement. He threw some real good sliders. I just would like to see him command the zone a little bit better. I’ve talked to him about that.”
I finally cornered Roy Oswalt on Tuesday and asked him how he felt and he seemed shocked I was even asking. In other words, Oswalt will definitely make his next scheduled start Thursday against the Braves, the only National League he has never beaten.
Astros general manager Ed Wade had Astros director of research and analysis Charlie Norton crunch some numbers, and the results were interesting. From the beginning of the season through Sept. 3, baseball has paid approximately $383 million to players on the disabled list.
As of that date, the Astros had 21 DL stints, which ranked in the top five and they had paid out $8.8 million, which ranked probably in the bottom six or seven. The Mets were at $41 million dollars.
Versatile infielder Jeff Keppinger remains day-to-day with back tightness. Keppinger hasn’t played since leaving Friday’s game against the Phillies, and he looks doubtful to play in the three game series against the Braves.
But it’s not like the Astros are in a hurry to get him back. Aaron Boone, Geoff Blum, Miguel Tejada, Chris Johnson and Tommy Manzella give them plenty of depth on the left side of the infield.
Roy Oswalt was unavailable to the media Monday morning because the Astros sent him to the doctor have an upper-respiratory infection checked out. Oswalt, who left Saturday’s game with tightness in his lower back, said he had flu-like aches during the game.
As far as his back is concerned, Oswalt gave manager Cecil Cooper a thumbs-up Monday, leading Cooper to believe that Oswalt would be available to pitch Thursday against Atlanta. And general manager Ed Wade concurred.
“All indications I’ve gotten from [pitching coach] Dewey [Robinson] and from [head athletic trainer] Nate [Lucero] are that he should be ready to go in his next start,” Wade said.
Meanwhile, infielder Jeff Keppinger was unavailable Monday because of a stiff back and remains day-to-day. Reliever Alberto Arias, on the disabled list with a right hamstring strain, received a pain-killing injection in his right knee over the weekend is feeling better.
Astros manager Cecil Cooper said infielder Jeff Keppinger was likely unavailable for Saturday’s game because of a problem with his right hip. Keppinger left Friday’s game with a back strain.
“He’s on the table and probably not available tonight,” Cooper said. “They’re gong to give him some treatment and keep him inside. Probably late in the game he’ll let me know if he’s even available to do anything, and I don’t think he is. We’re short in that area, but [Edwin] Maysonet can play all around and [Aaron] Boone play, so we’ll be OK.”
Doug Brocail pitched in his first game in a month when he threw a scoreless inning Friday against the Phillies. He missed 24 games with a right shoulder strain.
“He threw strikes,” Cooper said. “He’s not the Brocail we’ve seen in the past. Not real crisp. He had two sharply hit balls. He did a good job and threw strikes, and that’s the main thing. He pitched down in the strike zone pretty good and you just have keep running him out there when you can.”
Cooper believes Hunter Pence turned the corner after struggling for most of August. Pence entered Saturday on a seven-game hitting streak, during which he’s batting .391. He went 2-for-3 on Friday with a two-run homer to right field.
“When he’s at his best, he drives the ball to right-center,” Cooper said. “Hopefully we’ll see him climb and get that average back up over .400 and start climbing.”
The Astros player development department has named the following Players of the Month for August:
Triple A-Round Rock: Left-hander Polin Trinidad posted a 3-3 record and a 5.08 ERA in six games, including five starts, in August to earn Round Rock Pitcher of the Month honors. This marks his second monthly award this season and first at the Triple A level.
Infielder Chris Johnson was named Offensive Player of the Month after hitting .333 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs. He slugged .620 during the month, while posting a .376 on-base percentage.
Infielder Jason Smith received his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Month award after recording a .994 fielding percentage in 71 games on the infield this season.
Double AA-Corpus Christi: Before being recalled by Houston on Aug. 28, right-hander Wilton Lopez posted a 1.23 ERA and a 2-2 record in August. During the month, he struck out 22 hitters and walked only four en route to being named the Pitcher of the Month for the Hooks.
Outfielder Andrew Locke was named Offensive Player of the Month for the fourth time this season and for the second consecutive month, after hitting .391 with 19 runs scored, eight doubles, four homers and 14 RBIs. Locke had his season cut short because of injury, but finished his 2009 campaign with a .338 average (170×503), 20 home runs and 109 RBI.
Outfielder Nick Moresi‘s .972 fielding percentage while playing 51 games in the outfield this season earned him the Defensive Player of the Month title for Corpus Christi.
Class A Advanced Lancaster: JetHawks Pitcher of the Month, left-hander Shane Wolf, owned a 2-1 record and a 4.05 ERA and tossed one complete game in five starts in August. Catcher Koby Clemens had 18 extra-base hits, including nine doubles and seven home runs, while driving in 31 RBIs in 27 games en route to receiving the Offensive Player of the Month award. Through 112 games with Lancaster this season, Clemens had a California League-leading 118 RBIs.
The Defensive Player of the Month was outfielder Brandon Barnes, who has posted a .977 fielding percentage in 58 games in the outfield this season.
Class A Lexington: Right-hander Brian Wabick won his second Pitcher of the Month award this season after finishing August with a 2-1 record and a 1.50 ERA in 10 relief appearances for Lexington. He also won the award in June.
Outfielder Brian Pelligrini was named Offensive Player of the Month for the third time this season after hitting .262 with six doubles, six home runs and 17 RBIs in 30 games with the Legends. Infielder Brandon Wikoff received Defensive Player of the Month honors after recording a .974 fielding percentage in 34 games at shortstop this season.
Short-Season A Tri-City: Right-hander Robert Donovan was named Pitcher of the Month for Tri-City after going 1-1 with a 1.15 ERA in six games, including three starts. IF Barry Butera hit .358, had a .408 on-base percentage and hit eight doubles to earn the club’s Offensive Player of the Month honor. The Defensive Player of the Month went to infielder Nicholas Stanley after he compiled a .992 fielding percentage through 57 games at first base this season.
Rookie Level Greeneville: Right-hander Jose Cisnero went 1-1 record with a 3.18 ERA, while striking out 37 hitters in six starts to earn his second consecutive Pitcher of the Month honors for Greeneville. Offensive Player of the Month honors were earned by infielder Aaron Bray, who hit .300 with a .398 on-base percentage and nine RBIs in 23 games. Outfielder Grant Hogue was named the Defensive Player of the Month for the second time this season after collecting a .961 fielding percentage in 53 games in Greeneville’s outfield.
Rookie Level Gulf Coast League: Right-hander John Frawley earned Pitcher of the Month for the Astros Gulf Coast League affiliate after posting a 2-0 record with one save and a 0.90 ERA in seven relief appearances. Infielder Kody Hinze was named the Offensive Player of the Month because of his .478 on-base percentage in 17 games in August. Defensive Player of the Month went to IF Brandon Wilkerson, who played in 40 games on the Astros’ infield.
Rookie Level Dominican Summer League: Right-hander Jose Perdomo posted a 1.93 ERA in three starts to earn Pitcher of the Month honors for the DSL Astros. The Offensive and Defensive Player of the Month honors were awarded to IF Raymer Lopez, who hit .295 while posting a .923 fielding percentage in 34 games on the infield.